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Allium is one of only fifty-seven or so genera of flowering plants which comprises over five hundred species as its members (estimates range from as low as two hundred and sixty right up to nine hundred and seventy-nine). It includes the well-known foods chives, cultivated onion, garlic (for which the genus is named, Allium is Latin for garlic), leek, scallion, shallot and spring onion. Itself the largest genus in the Amaryllidaceae and Alliaceae families (dependent on which classification system you follow), Allium was first described by Linnaeus, in 1753.
Since early times, various species have been cultivated by people around the world (aided by their wide range across mainly temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere) for use as food. Today, roughly twelve or so species are considered to be economically important crops internationally, notably aided by their increasing adoption in ornamental as well as vegetable gardens.
Allium species vary in height from between five to one hundred and fifty centimetres and form umbrella-like flowers. The tasty bulbs for which many species are famous for range from a few millimetres to approximately ten centimetres in diameter. The species’ characteristic garlic-onion taste and aroma derive in the main from chemicals produced by the plants, and apparently disappear completely should they be grown in entirely sulphate-free conditions!
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